San Diego Unified School District officials expect a big crowd at their Tuesday night meeting with people upset, and in some cases misinformed, about a recently launched anti-bully campaign aimed at protecting Muslim students.
District spokesman Andrew Sharp said San Diego Unified has heard from many people concerned that the effort would be a violation of the separation of church and state rules, plus other issues.
Several readers of The San Diego Union-Tribune and the Los Angeles Times, which published the same article about the school board action earlier this month, raised many of the same concerns and questioned whether the district was giving special treatment to Muslim students.
The issue has received national attention, including from the conservative web site Breitbart, which published a story on the district Sunday.
The initiative was explained at the April 4 school board meeting as part of a broader district effort to create a safe environment for all students. Its roots were in a 2015 study by the Council for American-Islamic Relations that found 55 percent of American Muslim students surveyed in California said they were bullied because of their religion, which was twice as high as the national statistic of students reporting being bullied at school.
Stan Anjan, executive director of Family and Community Engagement at the district, said the district could begin rolling out steps to address the issue by the end of the school year. Those steps could include social studies lessons on Islam so students would better understand the religion. Another suggestion was including Islamic holidays on calendars so teachers who had Muslim students would be more sensitive about scheduling after-school meetings with parents.
Some people expressed concern that including the history of Islam in social studies classes would result in teaching Islam and violate church and station restrictions, while others thought including Muslim holidays on calendars meant schools would be celebrating those holidays.
The issue became further muddled when the website Angry Patriot reported the story with a headline that read, "Islamic takeover confirmed — American school surrenders to Sharia law."
Anjan said the district's plan does not include favoritism of Muslim students or violate church and state restrictions.
"San Diego Unified does not favor any religion over another," he wrote in an e-mail. "We welcome all students from all faiths within our school community."
At the April 4 board meeting when he explained the initiative, Anjan said lessons about Islam would help non-Muslims have a better understanding about the religion. He never suggested Islam should be taught to students as a religion to be followed.
Responding to questions about why the district is focusing on Muslim students and not others who also might be bullied, Anjan wrote that the district had already taken steps to protect students from being bullied because of their sexuality, and the effort might be expanded to protect more groups later.
"Our LGBTQIA (Lesbian-Gay-Bisexual-Transgender-Questioning-Intersex-Asexual) work is simply a model for the Islamophobia work, and there will obviously be unique situations to address in each community," he wrote.
Responding to questions about why the district would put Muslim holidays on the calendar, Anjan other holidays may be added.
"Our plan is to add major holidays for all faiths to help principals and individual school communities plan events at times that are least disruptive to the populations they serve," he wrote. "It is a resource to assist schools — not a mandate."
Addressing concerns about cost, Anjan said it's too early to tell because nobody has been assigned to establish details of the policy.
At the board meeting earlier this month, Anjan had said schools might establish "safe spaces" for Muslim students. He explained that the district would be giving equal, not preferential, treatment to Muslim students.
"We believe all our schools should be safe places for all our students," he wrote. "Schools with large Muslim communities may choose to make areas available for prayer, if that is requested by their parents and students. However, this is no more or less than we would do to accommodate Christians who want to pray at school, or members of other faiths."
Anjan was more to the the point when asked if the district was implementing Sharia law.
"No," he said.